This Mother’s Day, there will be a few women who will wish the celebration would never end. That’s because it wasn’t that long ago when they couldn’t envision being in a position to celebrate at all.
Desperate, down on their luck and depressed, these women have been forever changed thanks to the efforts of two locals that worked tirelessly to bring stability and confidence back to their lives.
Since 1985, the nonprofit Catholic charity Good Counsel Homes has offered an alternative to life on the streets for women and their children. Its stated mission: “to help homeless, pregnant women in a safe and secure residence.”
In addition to putting a roof over their heads, Good Counsel Homes also helps residents with vocational training and internships, high school equivalency programs, and reunions with estranged family members. Women who live at the home also receive targeted life skills education, childcare, and the emotional support necessary to rebuild their lives.
When a pair of South Jersey residents wanted to bring a Good Counsel Home to their region, the hurdles were steep. The duo needed five years and $650,000 to get the doors open at their facility, but with a lot of persistence, they were able to achieve their goal in 2011.
“Basically, it was a lot of going out and friend-raising and fundraising,” says Brenda Quinn, 46, of Clarksboro, the volunteer who co-founded the South Jersey Good Counsel Home along with Washington Township’s Bill Klatt.
Now, however, the pair and their supporters must nearly equal that feat on an annual basis to keep the shelter running. The yearly budget required to keep the Riverside home operational is just shy of a half-million dollars, “which presents a real fundraising challenge,” says Debra Reader, who serves on the leadership committee of Good Counsel.
In addition to formal sponsorship from groups like the Knights of Columbus, the Mount Holly Women’s League and the Women’s Club of Waterford, Good Counsel depends upon the continued assistance of individuals and local businesses. But the single biggest annual fundraiser the group hosts is its multi-site Mother’s Day weekend Walk-a-Thon, which last year brought in windfall donations worth nearly 10 percent of its budget for the year in a single day.
This year’s event will be held Saturday, May 19 at parks in four South Jersey counties—Memorial Park in Cinnaminson, Medford Park in Medford, Washington Lake Park in Washington Township, the Wildwood Boardwalk, and Challenge Grove Park in Cherry Hill. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m., and the walk is held from 9 a.m. to noon. Most walkers donate a lump-sum or per-lap sponsorship; all money raised goes directly to the Riverside location.
“A lot of people love the idea of donating formula and diapers, which is wonderful, but we have all the bills that 10 families have: the electric, oil, telephone and live-in staff,” says Good Counsel Program Director JoAnn DiNoia.
In its first month of operation, Good Counsel Home of South Jersey was already operating at capacity. In the time since, 11 babies were born to women residing at the home. Guests can remain up to a year after the birth of their baby; to date, 19 in total have passed through its doors.
“It’s not a shelter; it’s much more than that,” Quinn says. “Many of the moms who come here are so timid and so withdrawn, and within weeks they are blossoming. It’s the love that they get from being in the home … helping them see that they are important and they have dignity.”
Though many of the women were still too shy to tell their stories, Quinn and DiNoia told of how some of their residents arrived at the home. A few have slept on park benches; some have lost pregnancies due to abuse; others chose not to abort their pregnancies despite pressure from their families.
“We’ve talked to women who have come directly from the abortion clinic,” says DiNoia, including one woman impregnated by her boss, who threatened to fire her if she didn’t have an abortion.
In their first week at the home, residents meet with case workers to develop individual goals for their success. They receive individual and group counseling as well as life skills development, which covers topics like nutrition, parenting, finance, anger management, social skills, chastity and spirituality. When they graduate from the home, Good Counsel maintains a follow-up program called Exodus that tracks their progress.
“We’ve been the stepping stone for two young ladies to reunite with their families,” DiNoia says. “We’ve had two women leave to purchase cars and pursue nursing careers.
We follow up to make sure that they’re on the right path, and let them know there is support there for them.”
In addition to attending classes, doctors’ appointments and looking for full-time work, women at the Good Counsel home assist with its upkeep, taking turns with chores, cooking and childcare.
“We are about the reunification of families,” DiNoia says. “If a father has met with us and has proven that he is going to help support his family, we are not about keeping the families separate. Once that baby is born, that baby’s safety in leaving us is our primary concern. We want to make sure that baby is going into a stable environment.”
More and more moms are graduating from the program, Quinn says, which means women who were in dangerous situations are off the streets, and so are their children.
“Our moms, when they leave us, hopefully are becoming productive members of society and of the community,” she says. “We want any girl out there in need to know that there is help available.”
DiNoia echoes the sentiment. “There’s so many variations; there isn’t a typical mom,” she says. “Some callers are looking for placement, some are looking for information, but the immediate response of our intake coordinators is, ‘Yes, we can help you.’”
For more information on the Walk-a-Thon, or to make a contribution to Good Counsel Home in Riverside, contact Brenda Quinn at email@example.com or call 1 (800) 723-8331.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May, 2012).
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